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When Progressive Education Came to Kalamazoo


Many know that Western Michigan University began as a school for teachers. But it didn’t just train adults. It also ran the Campus School, which taught elementary through high school age children. The Campus School closed in the 1960s. But this week educator Larry Schlack told the Kalamazoo Rotary Club that its program is worth remembering.

WMUK’s Sehvilla Mann spoke with Schlack, who says the Campus School was a model of “progressive” education as defined by philosopher John Dewey.

SM: The Normal School is gone, the Campus School is gone, many of those buildings from East Campus are gone now. Why remember those things in 2015?

LS: Because they were an important part of American education. The campus schools all across the country have closed. There may be a few left. And they closed because they were not realistic anymore. They had private tuition and they did not really represent the student body in America today. And they couldn’t.

SM: When they opened, though, its sounds like they were a model of some really new ideas in education and those ideas went back to John Dewey, the philosopher.

LS: Yes. For many of them they did go back to John Dewey. Not all of them, but – it was an experiment in American education. And pretty much we’ve gone back to “sit and get.” The teacher lectures and the kids take notes. Not completely, but that’s pretty much what we’re doing today.

SM: How were these schools such as the Campus School at – I guess it wasn’t WMU then but the Normal School, and then later WMU – how was it different from “sit and get”? What did these kids do?

LS: Well, the campus school here is a good example of that because the architecture had it built around a central gathering place. It was called a rotunda and it was in the center of the building. The classrooms opened off the rotunda, and first graders could mix with sixth graders out in that rotunda and do things together. Today we call that the ungraded classroom, when we do have it. But education according to John Dewey was to be a social undertaking - give and take between students and teachers, and not segregated in separate classrooms.

SM: Dewey is often mentioned as a pioneer of progressive education. What was it, specifically, that was progressive about his ideas?

LS: The main thing was that the student was the center, not the curriculum. The curriculum was important, there’s no question about that. But he wanted to look directly at the students, where they were, where they were going and the curriculum was a means of getting them there. In a way, we’re doing it just the opposite now. We look at the curriculum and we try to fit the kids into the curriculum. It’s not individualized enough.

SM: It sounds also like he had a broad idea of what education should include. So during your presentation to the Rotary Club you were showing pictures of kids in aprons, doing ironing at school. It looked like they were making flower arrangements at one point.

LS: Yes – activities. Get up and do. Hands-on. Be active. Be interactive with other kids, not just the kids of your own age.

SM: You said that by the time the campus school here closed its program had become obsolete – I don’t know if that was your word, but it didn’t really meet the needs anymore, it was out of date. But it also sounds like there were aspects of that model that you think were worthwhile and you’d like to see them come back – is that the case?

LS: Yes – I should say that there are aspects that still are around. In Kalamazoo County we have Education for Employment, where kids go to auto mechanics, carpentry and they are active. We have Education for the Arts, where kids go, following their own interests into the different arts. So all is not lost.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in January 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. Before that she covered a variety of topics, including environmental issues, for Bloomington, Indiana NPR and PBS affiliates WFIU and WTIU. She’s also written and produced stories for the Pacifica Network and WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Sehvilla holds a B.A. in French from Earlham College and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University.